25 March '16..
When former Mossad chief Meir Dagan died last week, the well-deserved tributes from his comrades in arms, admirers, as well as others with whom he feuded, all noted with praise his service to Israel. Dagan was a military hero who turned to intelligence work after leaving the army but began life as a child of Jews who had fled the Holocaust in Poland. All of the obituaries noted the fact that in his office hung a photo of his grandfather taken by Nazi soldiers moments before they murdered him. He spent his life seeking to preserve Israel against those who would seek to further the work of the Nazis by destroying the Jewish state. But it was not that lifetime of battles against Israel’s enemies for which he was best remembered. Rather, it was his battles with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over how best to counter the Iranian nuclear threat, as well as differences about the Palestinians that marked his last years and made him known far beyond Israel.
Dagan was a fervent opponent of a proposed Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities and did his best to frustrate any move by Netanyahu in that direction while he was at the Mossad. After leaving the spy agency, he came out of the shadows to become a public foe of the prime minister. Netanyahu has won re-election twice since Dagan left the agency and seems firmly ensconced in office despite the former spy chief’s withering criticisms. Now that the West has signed a deal with Iran that gives Tehran’s nuclear program international recognition, such an operation is out of the question for as long as the accord lasts. Thus, in the eyes of many observers, such as the New York Times’ David Sanger, Dagan won the argument with Netanyahu and former Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
As is the case with the nuclear deal, history will be the final judge as to whether Netanyahu or Dagan were right about how best to deal with Iran. But while there were good reasons for Israel striking Iran on its own, the assumption held by many in the media and Netanyahu’s left-wing critics that Dagan was the wise counselor locked in a struggle with a cynical politician interested only in his own survival is a distorted version of a complex political and security puzzle. If, as is as likely as not, Iran eventually emerges from the aftermath of a nuclear pact that will expire in a decade with a bomb, then the accolades being heaped on Dagan for thwarting the prime minister may not look so smart.
Dagan’s views were entitled to respect. But there are a few important facts about Dagan’s position about Iran that are often overlooked in the discussion about his arguments with Netanyahu.
The first is that, unlike many in the Obama administration, Dagan was not sanguine about Iran’s intentions or its ability to change. He correctly understood that if left unchecked Iran would produce a bomb. But he believed the best way to go about stopping them was to use the Mossad’s expertise in undercover sabotage. He was reportedly responsible for a campaign of assassination against Iranian scientists as well as being the driving force behind the joint U.S.-Israel effort to create a virus that would stymie the Islamist regime’s efforts. The Stuxnet virus, for which the U.S. claimed more credit than Dagan thought was appropriate.
But as much as the assassinations — which eventually the U.S. disassociated itself from — and the virus slowed the Iranians down, it did not stop them. The only paths that could lead to an Iran without a bomb were war, crippling sanctions, or diplomacy. Moreover, the decision about which path to take was always going to be made in Washington more than Jerusalem.
Though many in the Israeli defense establishment believed a solo Israeli effort could do sufficient damage to set back Iran’s nuclear program to the point where it wasn’t viable, that always seemed a bit over-optimistic. The military problem wasn’t as simple as it was when Israel took out Iraq’s sole reactor in 1981 or even its strike on the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007. The Iranian targets were spread out around the country and heavily defended. It’s far from clear that Israel’s excellent though relatively small air force could do the job or be able to sustain the kind of losses that such a conflict would entail. Those who claim that an Israeli strike would have been pointless are probably underestimating the impact of a successful effort, but the problems such an attack would have entailed were serious and far-reaching.
Only the U.S. with its carrier task forces in Persian Gulf and air force bombers had the ability to definitively take out Iran’s nuclear program. But the Americans, first during the Bush administration and then under President Obama clearly had no interest in such an operation.
Could Israel have defied the U.S. and struck Iran anyway? It might have. The moment of maximum leverage was in 2012 when Obama had called a cease-fire in his feud with Netanyahu in order to run for re-election. But for reasons that will probably only be fully known until after he leaves office, the ever-cautious Netanyahu chose not to use that window of opportunity that quickly closed after Obama won his second term and committed the U.S. to negotiations with Iran.
Obama abandoned his re-election campaign promises not to settle for any deal that would let the Iranians keep their nuclear program. Instead, he embarked on a diplomatic effort, during which he dropped most of the West’s key demands. The deal he got from the Iranians did appear to remove the threat of a bomb for the immediate future but it left in place the infrastructure that will give them a nuclear capability as soon as it expires, assuming that they don’t cheat on it before then. In the meantime, with the collapse of international sanctions, the Iranian regime will be immeasurably strengthened. Thanks to Obama’s decision about the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, Iran has also made tremendous progress in its quest for regional hegemony. Radical Islamist forces have gained ground and the strategic situation for both Israel and moderate Arab regimes has worsened.
It should also be noted that one of the factors that motivated Dagan’s feud with Netanyahu was personal. After an incident in which Mossad operatives got caught on camera in the attempt to kill a terrorist in Dubai, he wanted more time to make up for that disaster. But Netanyahu denied him another term at the head of the Mossad and that colored all of his subsequent public comments about his former boss.
It should also be noted that Dagan’s criticisms of Netanyahu for failing to make progress toward peace with the Palestinians never seemed to offer a coherent alternative to the prime minister’s policies. Dagan, a close associate of the late Ariel Sharon, had supported the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. That disaster, which led to the establishment of a terrorist-run independent Palestinian state in all but name, stands as a warning to Israelis of the dangers of further withdrawals and concessions.
If President Obama’s gamble on diplomacy with Iran leads to a transformation in Tehran that will ultimately prevent it from ever getting a weapon then those that counseled caution on striking their facilities will look like geniuses. Even if, as seems far more likely, the nuclear deal proves to be a short-sighted act of appeasement that only postponed an Iranian bomb, albeit while making Iran richer and more invulnerable to foreign pressure, the arguments in favor of an Israeli strike on Iran were always shaky. A concerted international effort, whether military or by sticking with the sort of crippling sanctions that could have brought Tehran to its knees that the U.S. chose to discard in favor of diplomacy, was always the best way to stop the Islamist regime. But that required a determined American government that didn’t exist either during Dagan’s time at the Mossad or today.
Dagan, the man who was the loudest in opposing an Israeli attack, was a genuine hero who deserves to always be remembered as such, despite his bitter and often unseemly bickering with Netanyahu during his final years. But if Iran does ultimately obtain a weapon with which it could fulfill its threats to wipe Israel from the map — recently reiterated during its illegal ballistic missile tests — and launch a second Holocaust, then Dagan’s opposition to the prime minister will not look quite so wise.
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